Wednesday, May 3, 2017

PhD Vouchers

This is Joseph.

Frances Woolley asks about why we don;t have vouchers for PhD programs.  As a part of this discussion she points out the issues of misalignment of incentives for K-12 school vouchers:
It's odd: school vouchers are frequently advocated for primary and secondary school students. Yet there are good reasons why they would not be expected to work well, especially for primary school, as the ones exercising the vouchers (the parents) are not the ones experiencing the education (the children). Also there are very large costs associated with switching schools, and especially going to a school outside your immediate neighbourhood, if you are six years old and not able to drive, or 12 years old and in a tight friend network. Hence the possibility for effective competition between schools is limited at the K to 12 level. 
I think a lot of the same issues would apply to PhD vouchers as would apply to school vouchers, especially in terms of the issues of coordination. So I am not a fan of the PhD vouchers idea, doubly so when there are provincial funding differences for the schools themselves.  I can see too many ways that we could end up with all viable students being at the University of Toronto, for example, with a clever use of network effects.

But the real issues are the barriers to change.  These are high -- just differences in the material that is being taught can be brutal to overcome when changing mid-semester.  Market forces will always be inhibited by the challenges in overcoming these barriers, especially since the service is being marketed to a proxy for the consumer.

But my biggest question is why the economist can rattle off real issues that don't even appear in the current conversation.  Everything is about quality, but this all presumes that the new system (at scale) will be better than the old system.  Which might be true, but pure market forces will suffer an uphill battle given transaction costs.  After all, how do you prevent "we will just under-serve a little bit, but not enough to make the costs of changing schools worthwhile" becoming a "race to the bottom" for most schools (with a few high priced and elite exceptions).


  1. Joseph: here is where I am coming from. I see people wasting the best years of their lives in PhD programs that they have perhaps 50/50 chances of finishing. Even if they do finish, they may not have any better job prospects than they did to begin with. Now not all disciplines are like that - I think completion rates are higher in the sciences where students work in teams in labs - but in the disciplines where students are expected to write their dissertations alone, the failure rate is to my mind unacceptable (as far as I can ascertain what the failure rate is from the limited data available).

    I believe that our educational programs should, at the very minimum, not harm our students. I'm not convinced every PhD program passes the "do not harm" test.

    PhD vouchers may be a crazy idea. But if it's an idea that starts a conversation about how to engage in responsible doctoral education, it's an idea worth talking about.

    1. I agree with your motivation. It is a very nice exercise for K-12 as well-- I like how you were able to show that worse issues apply to that idea and we still consider it.

      Failure to complete PhDs is a big issue. It is not like England where duration of study is capped at three years. And the potential for labor exploitation is huge.

      So, yes, I agree that it is a conversation worth starting and it made me think (thus the blog post). It is true that it may be better than the status quo, which says a lot about that.

      Thank you for the article, I don't comment as much on them these days but they are always thought provoking and thoughtful